Who Wants To Be NY Governor?

Eliot Spitzer, as New York State Attorney General
AP
New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has been going back and forth to Washington lately to testify before Congress about wrongdoing on Wall Street, traveling a path that could lead straight to the governorship in 2006.

The Democrat has made no secret of his desire to be governor of New York. And his attacks on unethical trading practices, self-dealing and conflicts of interest in the financial world have produced big headlines and favorable coverage.

"Eliot Spitzer's path-breaking work on behalf of investors has positioned him perfectly for higher office," said Howard Wolfson, a top Democratic operative and a key player in Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate victory in New York three years ago. "No politician in America has done more to hold Wall Street accountable."

The 44-year-old Harvard Law graduate has stopped just short of saying he is in the race. But in nearly every other respect, he appears to be running.

In addition to stepping up his criticism of Republican Gov. George Pataki - last year, the governor was "engaging and smart;" this year, the Pataki administration is "lacking in real strategic thinking and accountability" - Spitzer has begun raising the money he will need to get there.

On Dec. 11, a New York City fund-raising lunch featuring tennis great John McEnroe is expected to raise $2 million for the "Spitzer 2006" campaign committee. In the first six months of this year, Spitzer's team collected $2 million. Pataki raised just $200,000 more.

"He's racing, he's not running" for governor, state Democratic Chairman Herman Farrell said earlier this year.

"We all know that A.G. stands for `Aspiring Governor,"' Pataki spokeswoman Lisa Dewald Stoll grumbled after a recent jab at her boss from Spitzer.

According to the polls, Spitzer is doing well - even among Republicans.

A statewide survey released this month by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute had Spitzer's approval rating at 59 percent, and 62 percent among Republican voters. Pataki's approval rating was 52 percent.

Maurice Carroll, head of the Hamden, Conn.-based polling institute, said Spitzer's appeal to conservative voters is explained by two words: "Stock market."

With ordinary investors ruined and the markets reeling from scandals involving Enron, Tyco and other companies, Spitzer investigated Wall Street brokerages, accusing them of touting certain stocks in order to win the companies' lucrative investment banking business. Spitzer emerged as the populist prosecutor able to extract multimillion-dollar penalties from the brokerages.

In the past month, he has stolen a march on the Securities and Exchange Commission and gone after improper trading practices in the mutual fund industry, which controls billions of dollars worth of 401(k) investments. The scandal has widened to include dozens of firms, and on Tuesday, Spitzer filed criminal charges against three former top executives.

The investigations have earned Spitzer such nicknames as "the Sheriff of Wall Street" ("60 Minutes") and "The Enforcer" (a Fortune magazine cover).

"The thing that really has propelled him is he has, in a very substantive way, become a leader on an issue the public feels very deeply about - corporate malfeasance," said former state Comptroller H. Carl McCall, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for governor last year.

While Spitzer boasts about environmental lawsuits and other issues he has pursued as attorney general, he realizes it is the investigations of America's financial giants that have made him a political hot property.

"It would be silly of me to deny that," he said. "The Wall Street cases have touched a nerve that was more raw than others."

Privately, and sometimes publicly, Wall Streeters have charged that his actions are politically motivated.

In a 2002 interview with ABC, billionaire publisher-politician Steve Forbes said of the Spitzer probe of Wall Street: "There's a cynical alliance between ambitious politicians and rapacious trial lawyers."

The path to the governorship may not be an easy one. Pataki has not ruled out seeking a fourth term, and there is speculation that former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani might be the Republican candidate. On the Democratic side, Sen. Charles Schumer may have some interest, according to advisers.

Spitzer is not from the most liberal wing of New York's Democratic Party. He was a vocal advocate for sending troops into Iraq, supports the death penalty and spends weekends like a good ol' boy - watching NASCAR.

So far, money for his campaigns has not been an issue. He is a millionaire in his own right and his father is a New York City real estate developer who has helped bankroll his son's political career.

Spitzer is married to a fellow lawyer, Silda Wall. The couple have three daughters, ages 13, 11 and 9.

Before being elected attorney general in 1998, Spitzer had worked for several major New York City law firms and the Manhattan district attorney's office, where he eventually headed the labor racketeering unit.

"We love the strong-jawed, bright-eyed attorney general, a modern-day Eliot Ness who's both tough and charming," gushed New York magazine in August as it named Spitzer one of its "50 Sexiest New Yorkers."

"It was good for a laugh at home," recalled Spitzer, who is balding, with a heavy 5 o'clock shadow. "My daughters thought it was a big joke."

By Marc Humbert